Scents and Sensibility

The famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, thought he had an ace up his sleeve in Five Little Pigs when he waved a scented handkerchief to trigger memories in one of his suspects. Modern research suggests that he would have had a better chance of success if he had, in fact, done it while his target was in deep slumber.

The results of a controlled experiment, published in the journal Science last year, showed that the smell of roses-- delivered to people’s nostrils as they studied and, later, as they slept-- improved their performance on a memory test by about 13 percent. It is now only a matter of time before an entrepreneur exploits the commercial possibilities of this finding by promising struggling students the elixir of memorability.

Smell is said to be the most primitive of our senses, and olfactory senses follow a more direct path to the hippocampus, which is the brain's memory archive, compared to other sensory perceptions like sight and sound which are pre-processed by the thalamus. Since deep sleep is the state when the brain most effectively records each day's memories in the hippocampus, the burst of a previous fragrance at this time reactivates the same set of neurons that had fired when the fact was first observed by the cortex, the thinking part of the brain.

Other studies claim that memories triggered by a scent are not any more accurate than memories triggered by other stimuli, but they are more emotional. This could be a result of conditioning, where every smell or odour has a personal positive or negative connotation to the individual. For instance, someone who is first exposed to the smell of lilies at a funeral is likely to have negative associations with that smell all her life, whereas the perfume worn by a loved one elicits excitement even on others.

One of the challenges of fragrance research, at least to my mind, is that smell is a difficult variable to control, define and reproduce in the laboratory. Unlike colours that can be defined by a red-blue-green ratio, or sound that can be defined by a pitch-loudness-timbre triplet, scent is still a subjective sense that can best be described by comparison with common everyday smells. That would explain advertisements for room fresheners that evoke clean laundry or green meadows-- borrowing from visual stimuli and depending on cross-association.

If fragrance could be quantified by a cold calculating mathematical number, it would sound the death-knell of the perfume industry-- after all, Calvin Klein could no more patent a smell than Sherwin-Williams can copyright a colour or EMI can register a note. In fact, if you will indulge my cynicism, unlike a painting which is merely a sequence of colour-codes in two-dimensional space, and music which is a linear sequence of notes in time, a smell is a more prosaic presence frozen in the here and now.

All alone in the moonlight,
I can smile at the old days,
I was beautiful then.
I remember the time I knew what happiness was,
Let the memory live again.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats

Flower Power Failure

The fortieth anniversary of The Beatles' pathbreaking Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album last year gave birth to a virtual cottage industry of nostalgic journalists comparing today's events with those of four decades ago. Sure there are a few superficial similarities between 1968 and 2008 (America embroiled in an unpopular war abroad, for instance), but analysts are misreading the zeitgeist if they expect this generation to react to the political turbulence in the same way as the late lamented flower power children.

The flower power movement is arguably the most misunderstood of the sixties' legacies, being reviled equally by the left and the right. It has been accused of being cultish and immoral, ornamental and repulsive, substance lacking and substance abusing. The ambiguity in pigeonholing this mass community movement is evidence that it was nothing like anything before. While being readily embraced by counter-culture media like the Berkeley Barb, it remained relatively insulated from the passions being unleashed in Paris where students were flirting with a violent mix of Molotov cocktails.

In fact, flower power opposed the politics not only of the mainstream but also of the left. Hippies saw the confrontation tactics and mass demonstration of the anti-war movement as a mirror of the status quo, and attacked the Establishment with methods that were more evocative of Gandhian ahimsa. In one of the most poignant photographs of the era, flower children can be seen not only standing impassively before fully armed National Guards, but inserting flowers in the barrels of rifles that are pointed at them.

The movement realised that government policies were not the only forms of oppression that needed to be challenged-- liberation of the mind should impact both the workplace and the home, from the boardroom to the bedroom. They believed they had to go beyond traditional criticism and protests in order to challenge the square society; and this they accomplished with flair, using methods that were playful, imaginative, and improvised. When buses brought tourists to stare at Haight-Ashbury in 1967, hippies ran alongside holding up mirrors. This style made its mark on the movement's tactics, and demonstrated how new forms of protest and resistance could be created. The mind boggles at what could have been accomplished if these brilliant liberal free-thinkers had the power of the Internet in their hands!

Even as the movement imploded from an overdependence on drugs, the Establishment struck back with astonishing speed, demonising the excesses of the period and establishing a consumerist society to ensure that such social experiments were never attempted again. If it is true that art imitates life, then there is some truth in the caricature of today's latte-sipping YouTube generation who is not just impassive, but inert to events unfolding beyond the boundary of her personal space. Happily, the Presidential primaries in the United States have demonstrated a discernible growth in political awareness, as first-time voters are making their voices heard through the ballot-box.

Unfortunately, these faint rumblings have not yet reached the intensity of a mass movement, and therefore, drawing premature parallels between the sixties and the noughts stretch the limits of rational reasoning. It should also be remembered, if only as a wish-defiance, that 1968 killed the voices of two powerful hopemongers--Martin Luther King, Jr and Bobby Kennedy.

There's nothing in the streets,
Looks any different to me,
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye.
And the parting on the left,
Are now parting on the right,
And the beards have all grown longer overnight.
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss.
The Who, Won't Get Fooled Again